It was a story of political scandal in the UK that had Canadian journalists both envious and dismissive at the same time. Leaked emails that show that Number 10 – the UK’s equivalent of the PMO – was trying to stage-manage Prime Minister’s Questions with scripted questions that could be asked to the PM in a rather friendly manner, so that they can talk about good economic news and whatnot. But what was probably more interesting from a Canadian perspective is the fact that there was consternation in Number 10 that their Tory backbenchers weren’t taking them up on very many of those “free hits.”
Stage-management has long become the norm in Question Period here in Canada, and on most days, what is supposed to be our great exercise in holding the government to account is little more than a kind of debased puppet theatre on most days. It wasn’t until the questions about Senator Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright started being asked by opposition leader Thomas Mulcair that he finally saw fit to do away with his mini-lectern during QP, from which he used recite his scripted questions – though he still has his notes on his desk. Nearly all MPs stand and read prepared questions, only to be answered by prepared talking points. Most egregiously, backbench government MPs use their allotted questions to give fulsome praise to ministers, or to frame an attack on the opposition in a thinly veiled question. Speaker Scheer has given caution about those “hybrid questions,” but his record on consistent enforcement leaves something to be desired.
And it’s not just in QP that this kind of scripted theatre happens. In fact, most of what passes for debate on legislation in the Chamber is little more than speeches being read into the record, a kind of vacuum with almost no actual give and take or real exchange of views. It’s not uncommon to watch an MP show up, read their speech from atop the mini-lectern placed on their desk, and as soon as it’s over, they’ll pack up and leave the Chamber. The next person on the list will get up and read their speech, and on it goes. When there is time for questions and comments, the exchanges don’t tend to be really edifying. And to add to the perversity of it all, the other MPs on House duty tend to be busy doing paperwork, and I’ve even seen it happen that one MP was working on his laptop while wearing conspicuous headphones, completely oblivious to the speeches. That’s not exactly being engaged in the debate.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and there are a handful of MPs who can speak without the aid of notes, and sometimes ministers show up for debates on their bills and will answer the questions being put to them, or ask questions to those who have spoken to the bills. But they are the exceptions, which is part of why things have become so bad in our Parliament.
Take the debate that happened last week on the opposition day motion around ATM fees. Many of the NDP’s speeches, as movers of the motion, revolved around how awful it was that people have to pay to get their own money out, and terribly high those fees were, but when faced with real questions about their proposition, many about the basic economics that underlie their proposal – service availability versus profit margins, bank liquidity levels if the complaints are that they’re making too much money off of these fees – there wasn’t even an attempt at answering. It’s pretty hard for MPs to have an adult discussion on if the answers to basic economic questions are largely “I know you are but what am I?”
If we are to make meaningful change in the way that debate happens in this country, we should seriously consider turning back the clock on the use of prepared speeches and questions in QP. Like in the UK, it should be scandalous for this kind of obvious stage-managing to take place. The Rules of Order and Decorum in the House of Commons Procedure and Practice cites the following 1956 Speaker’s ruling:
A Member addressing the House may refer to notes. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of other parties or Members speaking on their behalf, may read important policy speeches. New Members may read their [maiden] speeches. The Members speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, the Members speaking in debates involving matters of a technical nature, or in debates on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and on the Budget may use full notes or, if they wish, read their speeches.
In other words, a few notes but no prepared speeches with those few listed exceptions. Can you imagine what that would do for our debates here? MPs might be forced to pay attention and get involved in what they’re speaking about, or to engage with their subject matter rather than simply reciting the words that the kids in short pants in their leader’s office gave them. And you see it happen – MPs who didn’t read over that speech before they delivered it.
In the UK, Speaker Bercow warned that PMQ is the “shop window to the House of Commons,” and warned that Members should use it wisely. If that were applied to Canada, it would portray a rather bleak picture when it comes to our own Chamber. With so many speeches being read into the void, and Question Period no longer about debate but rather about creating clips for the evening news or YouTube videos for an MP’s website, we’re losing sight about what Parliament is supposed to be about.
Holding the government to account means engaging with the proposals being put before the House. If an MP can’t handle a couple of minutes of public speaking in a day, then perhaps they should re-evaluate their chosen line of work.
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